Off the Grid: Portraits of Sustainable Lives

Off the Grid: Portraits of Sustainable Lives

Eric Valli captures those who live light on the earth


A lot of what we think of as environmentalism is simply the result of consumer manipulation. Nothing sells quite like making people feel good about themselves, so buyers continue to purchase the "green" version of products that enable inherently unsustainable habits. Like unbleached paper towels or new hemp clothes or the smartphone made from recycled materials. These things won't actually save us. It doesn't matter if the products we buy are organic if we're still manufacturing, transporting and consuming them at the same rate as ever.

There are environmentalists who remember to bring their canvas shopping bags to Whole Foods and then there are environmentalists who quit America and live off the land. The latter are people who realize that no matter how conscientious their consumer choices may be, the consumerist system itself is the ticking time bomb that will ultimately lead to the destruction of the living world.

So they quit. They unplug. They sell their belongings, they terminate their phone contracts. They break their leases and abandon their cars. They retreat to the parts of the country that remain untouched by highways and chain stores. They build a system of being from the ground up. They understand that the only way to fix the problem is to stop being part of the problem. So they leave. 

Eric Valli photographs these people. He follows them to their homes--old cabins lit by oil lamps and heated by stoves or simply camps set up in the woods every night. He accompanies them on hunts and fishing trips. He watches the way they live off the land around them. He lives with them. He documents it.

The idea of broadcasting a simple, disconnected life over the internet with the help of a cutting-edge camera carries its share of problems, but Valli's quiet, respectful portraits don't seem to interfere with the lives their subjects have chosen. Valli stands in as a reverent eye, showing us images of those people who have shunned the convoluted exchange of the capitalist system in favor of bartering directly with the land. The images are beautiful. What's more, they are necessary. We need them to kindle that little fire inside of us that begs us to want less. We need them to ensure that spark actually leads us to reduce our consumption, not just consume differently according to another's desire for wealth. We need to step out from the desperate grappling for remaining resources and learn to let the land take care of us. We see now that it's possible. We just have to be strong enough to follow it.